Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Helsinki, Forever. (2008) Peter von Bagh

The first time I ever left the country I landed on a runway in Helsinki. I was twenty years-old and I thought I had you, me, everybody and their Uncle -- the whole world -- figured out, and I was barely in my third year of college. (There are times when I catch myself thinking that I've got it all figured out even twenty years later, but these days I simply remind myself that it just. ain't. true...)

I missed several connections that day and didn't speak a word of Finnish, not even "hampurilainen," a word which a few years later certainly helped ("Hamburger"). But I somehow made it to the correct dock that was to boat me over the Baltic waters onto the shores of what was then communist Tallinn, where I was supposed to catch up with some band mates. The only problem was that I arrived too late. The boat was gone, the dock was closed. The banks were closed, too, and this being my first trip, I wasn't smart enough to change my money at the airport. So I sat down outside the dock with my only travelling companions -- my luggage bag, my bass, and my amp -- and spent a freezing November night in the dribble and snow simultaneously praying and begging while gritting my teeth at God. At least I was smart enough to have worn a long jacket that night. It must have been what saved me from freezing to death.

Helsinki became a city I would travel back to time and again over the next ten years. Even with our rough beginning, I grew to become quite fond it. There was a club somewhere in the heart of the city -- I don't remember its name and don't even know if it's still there -- where several formations of bands I was in played to a packed house each time. More often than those crowded-house experiences, I remember other times where we played venues in town where the population was sparse. The one thing I do remember, whether playing as a known musician or not, is that the Finns of Helsinki were always happy to have music played for them. There's a lot of repressed mood in this country, and a lively night with some music ala soul is an easy way to put a smile on a good Finn's face.

It was with delight, then, that I heard about the documentary that Jonathon Rosenbaum referred to as a "symphony for the city." Mr. Rosenbaum was even at one of the earler screenings presenting Helsinki, Forever -- it made his list as one of the ten best films of last decade. I wish I could have been at the screening with Rosenbaum presenting. I'm certain I would have found even more to admire in this easily admirable film.

Somewhat a historical documentary and somewhat a lovesong to Helsinki itself, I realized from the opening image, which is by far the greatest image in the film -- an image that in itself made the entire event a true joy -- that I was staring through a portal at a vision of a city not many have had a chance to see. Even its inhabitants might not know this particular Helsinki, for the film stretched back over 100 years, revealing layer after layer of its humble foundations. I was overjoyed to let my eye take it all in. Who knows if I'll ever get another chance to see these archived black and white images from yesteryear? The dreamy pictures continually showed how the city was built, and not just with blueprints, architects and hands, but by ideas and the workings and inner longings of the soul: film stars and musicians, painters and poets, and (gasp!) a number of financiers and politicians all played a huge role in the hammering at Helsinki.

Closing in on the wrap of this year's EUFF, with my favorite film of the fest having been Finnish, it felt fitting to dialogue with the land, viewing early 20th Century prints that captured the first film stars and artists that made their homes there with pride. Or seeing old theaters and museums in their glory, having long since been demolished, wiped clean off the streets. Hearing the music and ideas of those who worked to bring us today's Helsinki brought to mind that you never know how great your ideas can really be.

We also gaze into the life of the everyday man, standing in freezing lines with a hundred more who only ache for a bottle in the cold Finnish night, or we see the whole land toughing out post-civil unrest only to despair between the Nazi and the Bear. We compare divorce rates from then and now, and DUIs, too. The results in the city's growth, and the growth of the issues city-life brings, is staggering. We see electricity explode from a tiny little spark into every facet and groove of the high rises and homes, putting Helsinki in the light of the global map -- it changes the attitudes and gives it a "new city" vibe, humming visible from the sky above, lit up from the labor of all the years.

It was a wonder to let these mostly black and white images flow over me. It's possible I've met some of the grandchildren or great-grandchildren of some of the characters I saw on screen. I may have had a long drawn-out conversation or even shared a taxi with the offspring of one of these classic old Finns. Regardless, the power of film is greatly on display in such a work as this. It's not just that images are archived and shown, but an idea is put forth, one that has exploded into an entire scene, a scene chock-full of thousands of other great ideas. The images capture an age that's lost but not forgotten, because someone wise enough was able to preserve them for our sake, and for leaning on for even better ideas in the future.

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